Nikki Caldwell, whose ties to the SEC are extensive as a former player and assistant at Tennessee, opened her remarks with a salute to the late Sue Gunter and Van Chancellor, the coach she is replacing at LSU.
Gunter was a legendary coach at LSU, and Chancellor, a stalwart of game, took LSU to the Final Four in 2008 and had tremendous success at Ole Miss and in the WNBA with the Houston Comets.
Caldwell, who was raised in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and whose family still lives there, played for Tennessee when Gunter was on the sideline at LSU. The remarks Caldwell made at the press conference underscored that she shares a deep-rooted connection to the SEC.
“I just remember playing against Sue Gunter and how good they were, and I know that she did it the right way,” Caldwell said in a phone interview after that press conference in Baton Rouge. “There is a generation of us that played in the early 1990s that are now coaching, and we’re able to coach at places where there were iconic coaches that made a difference in the game when it wasn’t popular.
“There is definitely a level of appreciation. You look at what Van Chancellor meant to the women’s game. I get that and I understand that, and I think you’ve always got to pay respect to those who came before you.”
Caldwell sported a black jacket and purple blouse during her press conference and made references to the team’s style of play next season – “run, run, run” – her expectations of defense and rebounding to win championships and the fact she couldn’t spill the news early to her mother because all of Oak Ridge would have known before the decision was final.
“Purple actually is the color that’s in now if you look at what the styles are,” Caldwell said. “So when I was going through my closet I had purple in there. I’ve got an eclectic closet. It’s got a little bit of everything.”
Caldwell won’t be sporting her motorcycle jacket this week. Caldwell had been slated to join Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick for TN4Pink, a ride from Memphis to Alcoa on April 7-9 to promote breast cancer awareness as part of their joint Champions for a Cause organization.
Details of the ride are available here and here.
Caldwell will take part next month in the annual long-haul motorcycle ride, which this year will go from Sturgis, S.D., to Los Angeles.
But this week Caldwell has to begin the transition from Los Angeles to Louisiana.
“I talked to Holly and our board and they understand this whirlwind that is transpiring right now,” Caldwell said. “It’s a good whirlwind, but they understand all that’s involved in that. I am in Louisiana right now and I’ve got to tie up some things there at UCLA. But I definitely wanted to make sure that I get everything organized here in order for me to be available for our ride next month.
“We’re going to do everything we can to beat this ugly disease.”
That “TaTa Tour” event also brought Caldwell back home to East Tennessee for the past three years when the motorcycle ride began and ended in Knoxville, and Caldwell’s extended family always turned out to see her. Needless to say the news that she would move to Baton Rouge, La., which puts Caldwell back in the South, went over well in Oak Ridge.
“They celebrated,” Caldwell said. “They were just ecstatic. My mom loves her daughters. My sister is in Georgia and now I’m in Louisiana so she feels like even though they are not right here, I can still get to them. She didn’t feel like she could get to me being so far away.”
Caldwell conducted a phone interview Monday with media in Tennessee. She said Coach Pat Summitt called and sounded like a “proud mom.”
“Coach has always been just a great sounding board/mentor for me,” Caldwell said. “She’s been someone who I trust. I trust her guidance and her advice. She’s been great in that regard. I’ve had good contact with her. Like any proud mom, she’s very excited for me. She’s excited that I’m back in the SEC.
“Obviously she and Sue had an unbelievable relationship, and she is just very proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
LSU returns a core of veteran players, including LaSondra Barrett, Taylor Turnbow, Swayze Black, Courtney Jones and Destini Hughes, and Caldwell should have the Lady Tigers competing for the top spot in the SEC quickly.
“Exactly,” Caldwell said. “You look at it, and you see the writing on the wall. The staff before us did an unbelievable job of assembling a great, great roster and obviously we want to make sure we continue to develop them. The cupboards aren’t bare and there is great talent that is on the roster.
“I know that these young ladies are going to work extremely hard, and they’re going to be committed to taking their game and this program to that next level.”
When a media member asked Caldwell in the press conference about trying to topple Tennessee, she smiled and said, “Trying?”
Caldwell laughed about that later.
“I just talked about the preparation and you have an attitude where you’re ready to go toe with toe with a school (in recruiting battles) just as you are as a team with whoever you’re playing,” Caldwell said.
“It starts with your competitive attitude and standing toe to toe with that team and not backing down. I know that there are a lot of great teams in the SEC and a lot of teams are on the up rise now and the way the land has shifted a little bit.
“I wanted our team (the players were at the press conference) and everybody to know that it first starts with your attitude.”
Summitt welcomed her former pupil to the league.
“I am absolutely thrilled for Nikki,” Summitt said Monday. “It’s UCLA’s loss and LSU’s fantastic gain to get a brilliant, rising coach of Nikki Caldwell’s caliber. LSU is committed to its women’s basketball program both financially and with the resources they have in place to compete amongst the best teams in the nation.
“The Southeastern Conference will become much stronger with Nikki joining the league. Her accomplishments in the three short seasons she was at UCLA are indicative of more of what will come from Nikki and her staff at LSU.”
Caldwell’s salary has more than doubled from about $300,000 a year at UCLA to $700,000 annually at LSU with performance bonuses that could take it close to $900,000.
Tennessee was challenged just three times this past season in the SEC – a road game early at LSU and road games late at Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The quality of play overall in the league was down the past two seasons, especially compared to the epic battles waged by LSU and Tennessee from 2004 to 2008 for SEC supremacy, and Caldwell brings an immediate upgrade to the conference. A strong LSU is good for the SEC.
“I have always felt like the SEC was one of the stronger conferences in the country and having played in it and having played against and coached against an LSU team I think that it’s great for our conference, and it’s going to be great for the game when you have LSU playing in Final Fours and playing for championships,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell also cited the success overall at LSU in other sports, such as football, gymnastics, track and baseball.
“Championships are won here,” Caldwell said. “So we want to make sure that we are doing our part as their staff in positioning them to getting to that point.”
Caldwell brought her staff with her from UCLA – assistants Tasha Butts, also a former Lady Vol; Tony Perotti, a former practice player at Tennessee; and Stacie Terry. It was important to Caldwell that her staff stayed intact for the move east.
“I think when you look at what we were able to do in a short period of time at UCLA was because this staff worked extremely hard,” Caldwell said. “They did an unbelievable job of getting our recruiting database where it needs to be. They did an unbelievable job in player development and not only developing them on the court but also character development – making sure we were doing things the right way all the time.
“In order to get your team to be family you had better represent it yourself and so you’re talking about having your back and being supportive of each other, your staff has got to be able to do the same. It was extremely important because I felt confident that we would be able to get the job done because they were with me.”
Caldwell also retained Pam Walker, a UCLA alum and longtime assistant coach for the Bruins, as her director of basketball operations. But Caldwell indicated if opportunities arose for Walker or her other coaches in Los Angeles with the UCLA job now open or elsewhere, she would assist.
“That’s (the plan to retain Walker and the entire staff) unless something else evolves for them,” Caldwell said. “I know that I’ve got a great staff, and I know people in the country recognize that and there have been talks and opportunities for them as well.
“If that does happen for them I am going to be the first one that’s going to be making that phone call on their behalf, wishing them well and seeing what else I can do to help.”
Caldwell set program records at UCLA in a short period of time in terms of best start ever, overall wins and Pac-10 victories. Had LSU not been in the Southeast and closer to home, Caldwell likely would still be in Los Angeles.
“It was not an easy decision by any means,” Caldwell said. “I looked at the young ladies that are there, and you feel very, very torn when you have to leave them to move on to a different opportunity.
“But it’s one that I know that they respect, I know that they will understand one day. It gives me an opportunity to come back to the South. It gives me an opportunity to compete in the SEC. When you’re at a special place like a UCLA obviously it’s going to take something special for me to leave there. And LSU is definitely a special place as well.
“I will take everything and all the things that I have learned and been exposed to having been in the Pac-10 and having competed in that conference, those are all things that I am going to be able to use in our strategy and how we move forward.”
Caldwell has already coached on “The Summitt” court from the opposing bench when her UCLA team came to Knoxville in the 2009-10 season, a game won by Tennessee. That was just one game – and the Lady Vols are scheduled for a return trip to UCLA this coming season – but now Caldwell will compete in the same recruiting pool and in the same conference with at least one matchup with Tennessee a season.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Caldwell said. “I think it’s going to add another level of competitiveness. You look at when (Mickie) DeMoss went to Kentucky and I remember when she came back and played in Thompson-Boling Arena how excited the fans were for her. They gave her a standing ovation.
“That tells you the character of the fans that are fans of the women’s game, and they understand that we all come, we go, we compete against each other, but that’s also a true testimony of Coach Summitt and her having so many of her former players and practice players out there in the profession, and we’re being successful. It’s a tribute to her as well.
“It will be great for my family to be able to see us play, and they’re going to be torn, too, because they still bleed orange as well. It’s going to be healthy. It’s going to be positive. It’s just going to be great for the conference.”
Summitt has indicated that she does not intend to retire anytime soon, but when that day does come, Caldwell’s name would be on a very short list to replace the legend at Tennessee.
“I have been very fortunate because Coach really groomed me,” Caldwell said. “She gave us so many responsibilities and gave us opportunities to learn how to operate a program at that level. UCLA allowed me to come in and showcase that I was ready. That was a tribute to the journey that I’ve been able to be on.
“I am looking forward to building something special, really, really special here at LSU. I know that we are capable of it, and I know it will only be a short period of time before we are playing in those national championship games and when we’re playing for SEC championships. I know we have all the tools and resources that we need to get it done here.”
The video of Caldwell’s press conference can be viewed on LSU’s website.